Azerbaijan: Information on the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (APFP), including its membership, structure, activities, involvement in demonstrations prior to and after the elections of 1 November 2015, including police and government response; treatment of members by the police and by government (January 2015-May 2016) [AZE105517.E]

Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Ottawa

1. Overview

According to the European Forum for Democracy and Solidarity [1], the APFP [in Azerbaijani Azərbaycan Xalq Cəbhəsi Partiyasý (Researcher 28 Apr. 2016)] emerged from the Popular Front movement for Azerbaijan's national independence (European Forum 5 Nov. 2015). In correspondence with the Research Directorate, a researcher affiliated with the Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University who specializes in Azerbaijani political activism stated that the Popular Front "started as a national movement after independence bringing together academics, university students, and dissidents" (Researcher 28 Apr. 2016). Sources report that the movement re-established itself as a party in 1992, and, in the same year, won the Azerbaijani national elections (ibid.; Sultanova Jan. 2014, 17). In correspondence with the Research Directorate, a lecturer with the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford, who specializes in non-democratic regimes in post-Soviet Eurasia, stated that upon winning the elections of 1992, the leader of the Popular Front, Albufaz Elchibey, was declared President of Azerbaijan (Lecturer 6 May 2016). In 1993, the Popular Front was removed from power in a coup which marked the beginning of the rule of Heydar Aliyev (Sultanova janv. 2014, 17-18; European Forum 5 Nov. 2015). According to sources, Heydar Aliyev is the father of Azerbaijan's current president Ilham Aliyev (ibid.; Sultanova Jan. 2014, 23).

Sources indicate that after the death of Elchibey in 2000, the APFP split into a "classical" wing, led by Mirmahmud Miralioglu, and a "reformist" faction, led by Ali Karimli [Kerimli] (ibid., 20; Researcher 28 Apr. 2016). According to sources, in 2004, another faction, led by Gudrat Hasanguliev, split off and established itself as the Whole of Azerbaijan Popular Front Party [also referred to as Whole Azerbaijan Popular Front (Lecturer 6 May 2016) or United Popular Front (Instructor 28 Apr. 2016)] (Lecturer 6 May 2016; AECR n.d.). Sources stated that Hasanguliev's party has been described as a "puppet" opposition party; it is suspected to have been established by the government in order to "confuse voters" and to secretly support the current regime's agenda (Researcher 28 Apr. 2016; Lecturer 6 May 2016).

Sources describe the current position of the APFP, led by Karimli, as "one of two main opposition parties" (Researcher 28 Apr. 2016) or "the most prominent [opposition party] in Azerbaijan’s politics" (Lecturer 6 May 2016). According to the researcher, Karimli's party is the "heir to Elchibey's party and is the one we refer to as Popular Front Party today" (Researcher 28 Apr. 2016). In a telephone interview with the Research Directorate, an instructor at the Department of Political Science of the University of Toronto Mississauga, who has written on the political situation in Azerbaijan, stated that the classical wing "has no broad base of support" (Instructor 28 Apr. 2016). However, the same source indicated that Karimli's APFP is a "legitimate opposition party" that remains "one of the most important opposition parties in Azerbaijan" (ibid.).

1.1 Program

According to the Lecturer,

[p]arties in Azerbaijan are best understood not in terms of their ideological or programmatic goals, but rather in terms of the degree to which the party leadership supports or opposes the current regime. The Popular Front is described as a “radical” or “hard” opposition party. Their opposition to the current government is rooted in the belief that they themselves were ousted from power in 1993 through illegal and illegitimate means. The Popular Front does not officially recognize the legitimacy of the current government and more frequently has engaged in public demonstrations and contentious politics to contest political power. (Lecturer 6 May 2016)

The researcher stated that "even though opposition parties like Popular Front do exist, they cannot in reality act as such. Instead, their work is similar to that of other, non-party, actors fighting for democracy" (Researcher 28 Apr. 2016). The Instructor stated that the APFP can be described "as a moderately nationalist, with very strong pro-Western views (i.e., strengthening ties with the US, EU, NATO, instead of of Russia)" (Instructor 28 Apr. 2016). Citing the APFP's blog, the researcher noted that the goals of the party are as follows:

We intend to establish a functional democracy in our country. Azerbaijan has a resourceful populace, and we can and must decrease our nation’s dependence on oil. We must break the economic monopolies controlled by corrupt officials. Our goal is to establish a free, market-based economy. We want Azerbaijan to integrate into the Euro-Atlantic community of nations, ending its status as a satellite of autocratic Russia. (Researcher 28 Apr. 2016)

2. Structure

According to sources, the APFP is described as an opposition party centered on the persona of Ali Karimli (Lecturer 6 May 2016; Instructor 28 Apr. 2016). The Instructor described Karimli as the "strongest opposition leader in Azerbaijan" (ibid.).

Without providing further detail, the Instructor stated that the party used to have a functioning internal organization in the 1990s, including a central committee and local units, but that the government has been closing down those offices and it is difficult to confirm which ones are still operating (ibid.). According to the rsearcher, "it is also almost impossible" for the APFP "to find venues to hold a party congress. Many business owners are afraid to be seen as supporting them" (Researcher 28 Apr. 2016). The Instructor similarly indicated that the party has a constitution and a somewhat "democratic internal organization" that calls for a party conference to be held every 4-5 years, but that it has not been able to hold the conference in over 10 years, as even renting out a conference room is too difficult due to the government's control (28 Apr. 2016).

3. Membership

Sources indicate that it is not possible to estimate the number of members of the APFP (Lecturer 6 May 2016; Instructor 28 Apr. 2016). According to the Instructor, "it is impossible to say how many members the party may have, but it could be estimated at 5, 000- 7, 000 active members" (ibid.). The Lecturer stated that the membership "is understood to be very small and limited to long-time party insiders and disaffected intellectuals and [is] concentrated in urban areas (i.e., Baku)" (Lecturer 6 May 2016). The Instructor similarly noted that the members can be described as "very educated people, for example, students, high school teachers, mostly living in urban centres or in the 'regions,' i.e., semi-urban dwellings" (28 Apr. 2016). According to an opposition politician that the Lecturer interviewed in 2008 and 2009, the APFP is "only supported by people on the fringes of society who are really unsatisfied" (Lecturer 6 May 2016).

Information on the requirements and procedures for becoming a member of the APFP could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

4. Treatment by Authorities

According to the Lecturer, "there has been an ongoing crackdown on dissent within Azerbaijan over recent years, during which time numerous journalists and civil society activists have been imprisoned" (Lecturer 6 May 2016). The Instructor stated that members of the APFP are "constantly persecuted" by the government; he said there have been instances in which party affiliates have been beaten by the police and arrested on "fake charges" (Instructor 28 Apr. 2016). A 2016 Human Rights Watch report on the situation in Azerbaijan states that the ruling government's practices of "politically motivated prosecution" based on false charges "reached a peak in 2015" and included the imprisonment of an APFP member, Murad Adilov (Human Rights Watch 2016, 92). According to the researcher, the APFP faces both "formal restrictions on freedom of speech, assembly and organization" and its members are subject to "informal repression … through, for example, negative public relations in state media, [and] various threats against them and members of their families to make them stop their work" (Researcher 28 Apr. 2016).

Sources indicate that Karimli's passport was confiscated and that the government is known to organize demonstrations against him outside of his house (ibid.; Instructor 28 Apr. 2016). According to sources, the APFP has operated without a head office for several years (Researcher 28 Apr. 2016; AI 30 Oct. 2015). Sources further indicate that its latest headquarters were demolished in an explosion in March 2014 (ibid.; US 25 June 2015, 28). Amnesty International (AI) indicates the incident was not "effectively investigated, and those responsible have not been identified" (AI 30 Oct. 2015). The US Department of State's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014 further states that the APFP chairman, "Ali Kerimli, accused authorities of deliberately trying to force the party from its office" (US 25 June 2015, 28).

Country Reports 2015 for Azerbaijan indicates that in 2015, "[a]t least 13 opposition figures were considered to be political detainees, including [the] Popular Front deputy chairman" (ibid. 13 Apr. 2016, 27). According to a list of political prisoners in Azerbaijan prepared by human rights NGOs and published on the website of the Europe Without Political Prisoners campaign of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee[2], the following members of the APFP remained in detention as of 17 March 2016:

  • deputy chairman of the APFP, detained since 8 December 2015;
  • advisor to the chairman of APFP, detained since 30 September 2015;
  • advisor to the Head and member of the Presidium of the APFP Supreme Assembly, detained since 25 December 2014;
  • member of APFP, detained since 11 February 2015;
  • member of APFP, detained since 8 January 2015;
  • activist of APFP, detained since 17 November 2015;
  • activist, detained since 15 November 2015. (NHC 17 Mar. 2016, 18-25)

The report also provides a list of "political hostages," including a brother-in-law of Ali Karimli, who has been detained since 27 March 2012, and a brother of the APFP's press secretary, who has been detained since 11 August 2014 (ibid., 70-72).

4.1 Treatment Since the 2015 Elections

According to sources, opposition parties, including the APFP, boycotted the November 2015 parliamentary elections (EPDE 13 Nov. 2015, 24; Lecturer 6 May 2016). Academic sources stated that they were not aware of any major demonstrations taking place around the time of the elections (ibid.; Researcher 28 Apr. 2016; Instructor 28 Apr. 2016), which, according to the Instructor, were met with a general indifference on the part of the population (ibid.). The Instructor added that there were no major demonstrations in Baku around the November 2015 elections, but "there were some riots in the regions caused by the worsening economic situation" and that the APFP was likely in attendance (ibid.). The researcher stated that the APFP's activists assisted in vote-monitoring during the election, "and as such it is possible that they faced harassment from police, as it is rather common" (Researcher 28 Apr. 2016). Corroborating information could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

The Lecturer stated that, to her knowledge, the most recent, and significant, protests of a "social/political nature" in Azerbaijan took place in January 2016 (6 May 2016). A January 2016 article by Public Radio International (PRI), a Minneapolis-based "global non-profit media company" (PRI n.d.), reports that "hundreds of people across Azerbaijan" have been gathering at government buildings to protest against price hikes and unemployment in the country (PRI 19 Jan. 2016). The article cites Azerbaijani media sources as indicating that the chief of APFP was detained during the protests in Lankaran, adding that, "in addition to opposition leaders, some prominent members of the opposition parties were also detained. Despite their pleas of innocence, detainees were sentenced to up to a month in jail, for taking part in unlawful protests" (ibid.). EurasiaNet, a New-York-based news portal focusing largely on the Caucasus and Central Asia countries (EurasiaNet n.d.), similarly reports that there were "protests over declining living standards" and incidents of arrests, including 55 persons who were detained between January 12 and 13, 2016 in Siyazan [a town 64 kilometers north of Baku] (Eurasianet 19 Jan. 2016). According to the same source, the government blamed the APFP and Musavat Party for organizing the January demonstrations (ibid.). Further and corroborating information could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of sources consulted in researching this Information Request.

Notes

[1] The European Forum for Democracy and Solidarity is a platform bringing together 12 political foundations and 20 parties which are founded on "social democratic" principles and "aim to contribute to the development of (social-) democracy in Eastern & Southern Europe and the Caucasus" (European Forum n.d.).

[2] The Europe Without Political Prisoners campaign website is powered by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC) and provides information about political prisoners in Azerbaijan, Russia and Armenia, including court case information (NHC n.d.a). The NHC is an NGO that monitors, reports, supports and educates the public on human rights to ensure they are "respected in practice" (ibid. n.d.b).

References

Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (AECR). N.d. "Our Members." [Accessed 12 Apr. 2016]

Amnesty International (AI). 30 October 2015. "Critical Human Rights Situation in Azerbaijan Further Worsening Ahead of 2015 Election." [Accessed 2 May 2016]

EurasiaNet. 19 January 2016. Durna Safarova and Islam Shikhali. "Azerbaijan: Wielding a Stick While Searching for Carrots." [Accessed 6 May 2016]

_____. N.d. "About EurasiaNet." [Accessed 6 May 2016]

European Forum for Democracy and Solidarity. 5 November 2015. "Azerbaijan." [Accessed 28 Apr. 2016]

_____. N.d. "Organization." [Accessed 12 May 2016]

European Platform for Democratic Elections (EPDE). 13 November 2015. Final Report: November 1, 2015 Parliamentary Elections, Republic of Azerbaijan. [Accessed 28 Apr. 2016]

Human Rights Watch. 2016. "Azerbaijan." World Report 2016. [Accessed 12 Apr. 2016]

Instructor, Department of Political Science, University of Toronto Mississauga. 28 April 2016. Telephone interview.

Lecturer, Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. 6 May 2016. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.

Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC). 17 March 2016. Europe Without Political Prisoners. The List of Political Prisoners in Azerbaijan. [Accessed 6 May 2016]

_____. N.d.a. "About the Campaign." [Accessed 10 May 2016]

_____. N.d.b. "About the Norwegian Helsinki Committee." [Accessed 10 May 2016]

Public Radio International (PRI). 19 January 2016. Arzu Geybullayeva. "In Oil-rich Azerbaijan, People Protest. The Government Responds with Arrests." [Accessed 6 May 2016]

_____. N.d. "About PRI." [Accessed 6 May 2016]

Researcher, Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Uppsala University. 28 April 2016. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.

Sultanova, Shahla. January 2014. "Challenging the Aliyev Regime: Political Opposition in Azerbaijan." Demokratizatsiya. Vol. 22, Issue 1. [Accessed 23 Apr. 2016]

United States (US). 13 April 2016. Department of State. "Azerbaijan." Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2015. [Accessed 28 Apr. 2016]

_____. 25 June 2015. Department of State. "Azerbaijan." Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014. [Accessed 6 May 2016]

Additional Sources Consulted

Oral sources: European Platform for Democratic Elections; European Stability Initiative; Human Rights Watch; independent human rights activist; professor, Department of History, University of Massachusetts Amherst; research associate, Foreign Policy Institute.

Internet sites, including: Council of Europe; Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum; ecoi.net; European Union – European Parliament, External Action Service; Factiva; Fédération internationale des ligues des droits de l’homme; Freedom House; Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; Trend News Agency; United Nations – Human Rights Council, Refworld; United States – Central Intelligence Agency.